Donald Kuspit on Contemporary Physiognomists



Erik Jones, “Conversation”, Pencil, Water-soluble wax, acrylic on Reeves
BFK paper mounted to panel, 24” diameter.

Psychological Realism
Until Feb. 18th
Booth Gallery

How do you make the physical convey the emotional?—that’s the issue of Psychological Realism, a group exhibition at the Paul Booth Gallery.  It always does—that’s the point of Charles Le Brun’s “physiognomic heads” and Johann Caspar Lavater’s “physiognomic portraits.”  Le Brun (1619-90), first painter to Louis XIV and the most influential academician and theorist of his day, thought that “the goal of physiognomy is to judge character according to the features of the face.”  In addition to his physiognomic heads, he made a number of drawings comparing and correlating human heads and animal heads.  For him their physical similarity suggested their emotional similarity, for he chose “animals whose spirit characterizes a particular emotion”—the eagle, ram, camel, cat, and ass.  Thus he made the animal emotion implicit in human beings explicit, in line with his theory that “all that provokes passion in the soul has some effect on the body,”(1) more particularly on the face.  We have animal bodies, and our faces have animal features, and our feelings—passions—are animal in nature.  So is their expression, whether in our faces or bodies.  For Le Brun art was the rational study of the irrational animal in the superficially rational human being, and as such an attempt to master it—to master our beastly passions with the aid of artistic reason, furthering the cause of reason in general. 

Similarly, Lavater (1741-1801), a poet, philosopher, and theologian, famous for introducing the idea that “physiognomy is related to specific individuals, rather than general types,”(2) believed that “the wise physiognomist who studied and used the science of physiognomy with discernment could read the internal from the external, the character of humankind from the countenance.”(3)  While Lavater’s physiognomic portraits, like Le Brun’s physiognomic heads, served the understanding of human beings--Menschenkenntis, to refer to the title of Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente (Physiognomic Fragments)—they were not specifically concerned to reveal the raw animal in the human, that is, to show the uncontrolled passion beneath the civilized façade, but, more particularly, to read the personality of the individual portrayed.  Mastery of typical passions was not the subliminal artistic issue for Lavater, but rather recognizing the idiosyncratic specificity of human beings.  

Are the artists in the Psychological Realism—virtually all portraitists (even as a few focus on the body)—wise physiognomists, insightfully discerning the internal in the external, subjective reality in objective appearance, exposing the emotional truth of their subjects, often themselves, suggesting their works are self-analytic if also self-loving, not to say narcissistically exhibitionistic? They undoubtedly are, but the technical means they use to convey their insight are distinctly different—more imaginative—than those the traditional physiognomists use, for the contemporary physiognomists have a deeper idea of the internal than they did, thanks to Freud’s idea of the dynamic unconscious. Le Brun and Lavater used descriptive means to convey the passions—exacting scrutiny of the external, achieved by relentless observation of appearances, meticulously documented with craftsmanly precision, so that the likeness of the portrayed remained intact, the details integrated to convey the integrity and wholeness of the person, however possessed by passion his body or moved by emotion his face.  Le Brun and Lavater were masters of consciousness—in contrast to the contemporary physiognomists in the exhibition, attempting to ride the dynamic unconscious, convey its compelling dynamics through the restless dynamics of their handling, often precluding conscious observation of the face by obscuring it into oblivion. 

The surge—a virtual deluge--of the unconscious rushes over it in Henrik Uldalen’s Tide, 2017, drowning him in its black depths.  With expressionistic fury, not to say rabid painterliness, the black gestures drag his face under. He is still alive and breathing, as his pink lips indicate, one hand grasping his throat, as though to force air through it.  Raw power is evident in his raw gestures; the work is a tour de force of expressionistic catharsis, conveying fear of death, perhaps the living death of deep depression.  The work is possessed by the death instinct, as Freud called it, even as the splashes of white—along with the libidinous lips—suggests a will to live.  The lips and hand are rendered with descriptive accuracy, suggesting that Uldalen still has a hold on consciousness—not as much as Le Brun and Lavater, but enough to indicate that he is a master of representational description as well as of abstract expressionism. 

Henrik Uldalen, "Tide", Oil on wood, 20" x 16"

My point is that Freud made it necessary for the artist to represent the seemingly unrepresentable and uncontrollable unconscious—more pointedly, particularly with respect to Uladelen’s turbulent, boiling blackness, the seething cauldron of the id, as Freud called it—in acknowledgement of the fact that it is more influential than consciousness, indeed, often enough dominating and overwhelming it as well as always informing it, indicating its privileged and powerful position in the psyche.  The artful gesture, forceful or subtle, or both at once, became the conventional means of doing so, for it seemed to convey the instinctive drive—urgent energy--innate to the unconscious, according to Freud.  Virtually all the artists in the exhibition are gestural masters, that is, experts at conveying unconscious dynamics—using the conventionalized gesture in a fresh, intense way that restores it to unconventional credibility.  In sharp contrast, Le Brun and Lavater were masters of consciousness, according it the privileged position in the psyche, giving its perceptions power over the passions—they never run wild in their works, as they tend to do in the works of the exhibition’s psychological realists, but have a clear and distinctive structure, that is, they are formally rather than informally  given (expressionistic art informal was not yet on the art historical horizon)—which was clearly observable as they became evident in the human face.  For Le Brun and Lavater to observe the passions as they showed themselves was to control, pacify, and socialize them.  They researched the passions--took a scientific approach to them—assumed they were as understandable as any other natural phenomenon--rather than indulged in them or surrendered to them as abstract expressionists typically do.  For Uladelen and other expressionists, figural or abstract, conscious observation of the externally given is sacrificed to the often nihilistic expression of the unconscious.

The expressionistic blotting out of the faces in Jean-Paul Mallozzi’s Reconcile, So It Begins, and Now, Get Up, all 2016—as in Uldalen’s painting—is another example of the power the unconscious has over consciousness. The expressionistically obscured faces in Now, Get Up convey the inner truth of the relationship between the figures.  The consciously described elements are secondary to the colorful faces, flushed with unspeakable unconscious feeling.  It is worth noting that the isolated figures in Reconcile and So It Begins are embedded in blackness.  The flat handling has the same destructive implication as Uldalen’s painterly blackness. 

A similar, if incomplete, obscuring of the face is evident in Maria Kreyn’s Obscure Object, 2016, Rune Christensen’s Still Life, and Erik Jones’s Conversation, both 2017.  The half-naked luminous female body in Kreyn’s painting rises out of a sea of blackness—her hair is also black--as though Botticelli’s Venus has become an enigma to herself, as her face, half-hidden by a shoulder, suggests. The white flesh of her body and her moody, shadowy face are at odds, suggesting a conflict between her outer appearance and her inner reality.  Like Uladelen and Mallozzi, Kreyn is a master of the hand—consciousness of her painter’s hand, suggesting the self-consciousness that goes into her presentation of herself as an obscure, that is, mysterious object—seemingly a seductive sexual object, emotionally solitary and inaccessible.  Is woman a mystery to herself as well as to man?  Christensen’s face is half-hidden by a beaded black mask.  Her dress is black with gold stripes.  Her arms, shoulders, and upper chest are marked with black tattoos. She glares at us with a certain aggressive, defiant intensity.  She is surrounded by graffiti of various kinds.  A black mask with a yellow phallic-like pyramid-shaped nose juts out of her lap.  It is an explosion from the unconscious, suggesting she is what Freud called a phallic woman.  No doubt that’s an over-interpretation, probably absurd, but then her appearance is absurd, and the graffiti that surrounds her are dream fragments, suggesting that she is immersed in fantasy, confirming the fact that she looks “fantastic,” that is, imbued with unconscious meaning.  She, too, is on the dark side, that is, sides with the unconscious rather than consciousness.  Indeed, she personifies its mystery. 

David McLeod, “Untitled Hologram of Time”, Oil on glass; tempered clear (low iron) 1/4” glass, wenge, aluminum, 71”x59”x20”

Jones is all face and no body—her full face is flush against the picture plane, boldly confronting us.  She stares at its unblinkingly, her lips rosy, her eyebrows meticulously trimmed, her features harmoniously aligned.  But one cheek is marked with red, the other blue, both in square-like shapes, and her forehead is cut off from the rest of her face, obscured on one side by a black section, marked with blue circles, on the other side by a red circle, marked with green and white.  The red drips down on her face, covering her left eyebrow and reaching her left eye.  Color abounds in her work.  It is as though her face peers out at us through a veil of color, as the colorful striations that drip down it suggest.  Clearly she is a painter, but what I want to emphasize is the black and red above her head, suggesting her split consciousness as well as passionate expressionism.  The unconscious, in the form of colors—Kandinsky emphasized their psychodynamic meaning—does not dominate the consciousness evident in her face, but it gives her a striking appearance she would not otherwise have.  For her, as for the other expressionistically inclined painters in the exhibition, the material medium, along with color, has an unconscious message. 

Daniel Bilodeau , "Consumed", Encaustic & oil on panel, 44" diameter.

The point is made, in a more restrained way, by the colorful flowers on the bathing suit of the young woman pictured in Jonathan Viner’s Private Picnic, 2017, along with the blanket on which she sits.  Clearly self-absorbed behind her sunglasses, she is in touch with her unconscious, as the fact that she touches the blanket suggests.  The naked odalisque in Viner’s Just Chilling, 2017 also hides behind sunglasses, suggesting she’s looking inward, and with that indifferent to the male eye that might regard her sprawling body as a sex object.  If Jones and Christensen confront us with the female gaze, Viner’s odalisque is blind to—neutralizes—the male gaze.  The naked female, her face hidden and her back facing us, in Adam Miller’s Horizon, 2010, is also self-absorbed—turned inward, even as she faces the distant blackness, a projection of her mood.  Daniel Bilodeau’s Consumed, 2016, a self-portrait, is more overtly—dare one say nakedly, considering his nakedness?--gestural.  To me its irony—Bilodeau carries all the stuff he’s consumed on his head, suggesting that the memory of it continues to consume it—is secondary to its expressionistic manner.  The painting is divided into black and white sections, with the figure between them, suggesting Bilodeau’s divided consciousness. The expressionistic halves abruptly contrast with the descriptive representation, suggesting the difference between the dynamic unconscious and the comparatively passive conscious, evident in the passive figure victimized by his self-indulgence. 

Jonathan Viner, “Private Picnic”, Oil on linen mounted to panel, 12”x12”

All these works suggest the power of the internal over the external—of the unconscious over the conscious—but nowhere is its power more evident than in Jesse Draxler’s I Wanna Be Serrated, 2016, David McLeod’s Untitled Hologram of Time, 2016 and Portrait of a Spinning Man, 2015.  McLeod’s portrait literally spins—it’s attached to a device that makes it spin and quiver—suggesting the power of the unconscious to make one’s head spin.  In the hologram his face fragments as it moves through time, suggesting the power of the unconscious to fragment the self.  In Draxler’s work the self has fragmented into incommensurate parts and psychotically reassembled.  It has become distorted beyond recognition.  It has become black and nightmarish--grotesque as death.  In Sergio Barrale’s Skull Spiral, 2016, in effect a doubled skull or two skulls in one, the death latent in life—the skull hidden in the head—confronts us.  That’s clearly a physiognomy to remember, not to say unforgettable.  One might say the memento mori is the ultimately expressive object.  In his When Sleeping Things Wake, 2016—a work worthy of Goya and Redon—we are entirely in the realm of the unconscious, trapped in a nightmarish dream, in a morass of morbid creatures, embryonic monsters emerging from a swamp of suffering.  Even more than in his Skull Spiral, Barrale gets inside our head, suggesting that we can’t get out of it—that there’s no escape from the unconscious, formless, monstrous, endlessly mutating.  The insidious blending of light and shadow—the shadowy light, the luminous shadow—confirms its hellish hold on us, suggesting that there is no way back to consciousness, as Le Brun and Lavater thought when they gave its irrational passions rational form.  WM    


            (1)Friends of Charles Le Brun website

            (2)Wikipedia entry on Johann Caspar Lavater

            (3)Joan K. Stemmler, “The Physiognomical Portraits of Johann Caspar Lavater,” Art Bulletin, 75 (March 1993):15

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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